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Sexy Beasts: Vintage Motorcycle Ads

Gorgeous posters and the stories behind them.

From the earliest days, a hint of sex has always helped sell motorcycles—not that they've needed much help, what with those top-notes of speed and power, and that freedom-of-the-road finish. But sex aside, motorcycles have inspired extraordinary work from generations of graphic designers. The proof, as they say, is in the posters. Here, some of our favorites...

Ciao, Garabello! Popperfoto/Getty Images Ciao, Garabello! Even though the winged creature in this poster is clearly Pegasus, for contemporary viewers the image likely evokes both Ferrari's and Porsche's famous logos, with a prancing black horse on a warm yellow background. As far as the bikes themselves are concerned, Francesco Garabello built his first single-cylinder, 240cc motorcycle at his shop in Piedmont, Italy, in 1903, and by 1922 had a four-cylinder, water-cooled 984cc machine on the market. Up and Away Swim Ink 2 LLC/Corbis via Getty Images Up and Away Like many motorcycle manufacturers, Charles Terrot started off making bicycles (and, later, quadricycles) in the late 19th century before designing and building motorcycles well into the 20th century. Today, vintage Terrot bicycles are often as valuable on the collectors' market as the motorcycles, while the company's posters ― like this dreamlike, strikingly colored example ― are recognized as embodiments of the genre. Sexy Beast Swim Ink 2 LLC/Corbis via Getty Images Sexy Beast Designed by Ernst Ruprecht (1891-1954), this Weimar-era poster, advertising a Grand Prix race in Bern in the summer of 1931, captures so much of the sport's primal appeal: rider and machine melded into a single, seductive beast. But there is also more than a hint here of one of the most dynamic art movements of the early 20th century, Italian Futurism, and its celebration of machines, speed, and the promise of change. Blowin' in the Wind Heritage Images/Getty Images Blowin' in the Wind An oddly grandiose, enjoyably trippy poster for one of the iconic names in motorcycles: Triumph. The company sold around 30,000 machines covering eight models in this particular year, 1929, all with the fashionable "saddle" tank. That company (Triumph Engineering) went under in the 1980s, but was resurrected as Triumph Motorcycles Ltd., which remains one of the world's premier builders of badass rides. To the Point David Pollack/Corbis via Getty Images To the Point Favor started making bicycles in 1898, and by the early 1920s had designed and introduced its first motorcycle to the public: a 125cc two-stroke machine. The company ceased manufacturing motorcycles in the 1950s ― but not before it also released a number of stunning (and collectible) posters, like this beauty. The French phrase, "Va droit au but," translates as "to the point." But you knew that. Britannia Rules the Roads Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images Britannia Rules the Roads While BSA remains one of the most famous motorcycle brands in the world (despite being effectively defunct since the 1970s), the Birmingham Small Arms Company Limited from which the bikes took their name was known for far more than just two-wheeled transportation. Buses, machine tools, firearms and other military gear ― for most of the 20th century, the BSA consortium was an industrial powerhouse in the English midlands. Along with Norton and Triumph, BSA defined two-wheeled British cool for generations of riders around the globe. Go Man, Go Swim Ink 2 LLC/Corbis via Getty Images Go Man, Go Held on the Isle of Man for more than 110 years, the annual TT (Tourist Trophy) races ― featuring superbikes, lightweights, sidecars, and other classes ― are among the most prestigious competitions in the motorcycling world. The Isle itself has long been a motorbiking mecca, and the fact that the 220 square-mile speck in the Irish Sea has just 80,000 year-round residents; is a UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve; and is the fifth richest nation in the world (by GDP per capita, per the World Bank) all help make it a fascinating and gobsmackingly gorgeous place. Built for Two (Or One, Whatever) Heritage Images/Getty Images Built for Two (Or One, Whatever) While "Built in the light of experience" might not be a tagline guaranteed to get the heart pounding, Norton bikes ― especially the 750cc and, later, the 850cc Commando ― are among the world's most recognizable and, let's face it, coolest motorcycles. This poster captures the brand's broad fan base, from weekend riders to hardcore, open-throttle diehards. Norton has been a major racing name for decades; in fact, its Manx racing model was a tribute to the Isle of Man, "Manx" being the native Celtic language of the island, as well as a catch-all term for all things Isle of Man-related. Everyday Thrills Heritage Images/Getty Images Everyday Thrills What's perhaps most striking about this poster is how vital it feels 70 years after it was released. Despite the fact that the colors are, at first glance, rather drab, the contrast of subtle hues with the energy and movement of the bike and rider suggests that anyone, absolutely anyone, can experience this sort of thrill, every day. Matchless was a major player among British motorcycle manufacturers in the early 20th century, providing British armed forces with around 80,000 bikes during WWII alone. Size Matters Popperfoto/Getty Images Size Matters This illustration of a stylish woman admiring an equally stylish bike mirrors a theme found in many motorcycle ads through the years: namely, Brobdingnagian people holding Lilliputian motorcycles. Bianchi bikes were manufactured in Milan from the 1920s through the mid-1960s, and found racing success in the Twenties and early Thirties. Today, Bianchi is far better known as a bicycle company: founded in 1885, it is the oldest continually operating bicycle manufacturer in the world. Take Flight Swim Ink 2 LLC/Corbis via Getty Images Take Flight Primarily known for its aircraft engines, the French firm of Gnome and Rhône made some very cool (and very fast) bikes from the 1920s through the 1940s. And like many manufacturers of a variety of vehicles ― cars, motorcycles, bicycles, planes, or some combination of all of those ― Gnome and Rhône often sought to incorporate that variety in their ads. This dazzling poster does exactly that, with birds that resemble airplanes swooping above a rider hunkered down on a lean machine. Military Grade Roger Viollet/Getty Images Military Grade Auto Union, which was Audi's predecessor ― note the familiar four-ring logo ― has long made impressive machines, with some of the most formidable ones playing key roles in the German war effort. If this poster doesn't say "Power" to you, you're not paying attention. Alas, the convoluted (albeit fascinating) ins and outs, machinations, and mergers and acquisitions that have long defined the German automotive sector are far too cray-cray to go into here. Riding and Nothingness Swim Ink 2 LLC/Corbis via Getty Images Riding and Nothingness Another wonderful example of a Terrot poster, this time featuring the most recognizable version of the company's logo, as well as a brilliant and simple color scheme, and a rider who, one might suspect, is racing to a cafe to meet friends, discuss existentialism, and sip absinthe while smoking two or three Gauloises at once. Faster! Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images Faster! No tribute to motorcycles would be complete without at least one nod to the thoroughly enjoyable (but yes, of course, by all means, utterly shameful and wrong) motorcycle-exploitation film genre. Directed by Russ Meyer, the granddaddy of tongue-in-cheek exploitation flicks, 1965's "Motorpsycho" ― released shortly before the master's magnum opus, "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" ― is a twisted tale of social misfits, revenge, and speed, baby, speed.